Overcoming Breastfeeding Trauma

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We first learn to love in our mother’s arms.  Breastfeeding should be a loving and joy-filled experience, but all too often breastfeeding is stressful, frustrating or painful.  I am passionate about helping mothers find their joy and reach their breastfeeding goals, whatever they may be.  Every breastfeeding mom I meet in my lactation practice touches my heart.

Meg’s Story
Every once in a while I meet a mom who touches my heart in a very special way.
I first met Meg and her husband when their daughter, Grace, was four days old. Meg was very emotional. She told me she was sure she had nipple yeast, and suspected Grace had a bubble palate and was tongue-tied. Her doctor had done cultures of her milk and she was taking an oral antibiotic and anti-fungal. She nipples were red and painful, and she had tried unsuccessfully to use a nipple shield. She had been pumping for the last two days and her husband was syringe feeding the baby. Feedings were taking more than an hour, and Grace was crying a lot. Everyone was exhausted. On day four!

As Grace slept quietly in her carrier and Meg’s husband sat silently by, Meg poured out her heart about her first experience with breastfeeding. Ian was born almost three years ago, and breastfeeding was “a disaster” from the beginning. Latch was painful, and Meg’s nipples cracked and bled. She had been given a nipple shield in the hospital. It didn’t help. Meg pumped. There didn’t seem to be enough milk at first, so formula was given until there was more milk. Ian cried and cried. Nothing seemed to help.

The pain, stress and frustration were too much. Meg had slipped into a dark place from which she was unable to love her son. For two months, she admitted, she had no motherly feelings toward her first born. Meg’s doctor prescribed an antidepressant, Meg exclusively pumped, and by the third month things were much better. Meg found comfort in knowing she was giving Ian her milk, even if she wasn’t breastfeeding. Her feelings of love for her baby grew. Today Ian is a thriving soon-to-be three year old.

This may sound like a success story, but it’s not. Meg now has a second baby, and she is absolutely terrified she is headed in the same direction with Grace. Through her tears she tells me, “I just want to breastfeed my baby!” Meg is still suffering from the trauma of her first breastfeeding experience. Fortunately, she found the courage to ask for help.

If I have learned anything in my professional career, it is to listen. Really listen.
Could it be that fear and anxiety were at the root of Meg’s problems?

Grace was a robust term baby. She appeared normal in every way. Her suck was well coordinated but a bit choppy; her palate and tongue were both normal. Meg’s nipples were a little red but otherwise looked perfectly normal. Since it was day four, Meg’s milk supply was abundant. Because she was afraid to put Grace to the breast, we used a nipple shield.

In spite of the fact that Meg was apprehensive, with a little guidance she and Grace quickly achieved a comfortable and effective latch. After a few minutes, Meg began to relax and so did Grace. We removed the shield and worked together to find a comfortable position that Meg thought she could reproduce without assistance. Armed with lots of reassurance, encouragement, a contact phone number for support, and a new sense of confidence, Meg and her family were optimistic about the coming week.

When I saw Meg again one week later, she was beaming. Exclusive breastfeeding was going wonderfully well. She and Grace were bonding, and Meg had none of scary feelings she had with her first baby. The cultures her doctor had done all came back negative, so she had stopped her medications. Grace was gaining weight. Meg was truly enjoying breastfeeding. This was a success story!

I’ll never know just what went wrong with Meg’s first breastfeeding experience, and unfortunately she probably won’t either. What I do know is that often mothers don’t get the skilled and targeted professional support and reassurance they need, and many even get inappropriate breastfeeding advice.

Finding Breastfeeding Support

In healthcare, we encourage moms to learn all they can about breastfeeding. It’s important to understand what’s normal and what’s not. However, self-diagnosis that is not accurate, may delay finding the right solution.

Where you seek help matters. Experienced friends who have had success with breastfeeding can often provide valuable encouragement and solutions for common breastfeeding problems, however, every mother-baby pair are different. Some problems require skilled professional support for diagnosis and solutions.

A lactation consultant (IBCLC) may be available where you deliver. Midwives, doulas, and lactation counselors can provide breastfeeding support for common challenges. Some physicians and nurses have training in breastfeeding support, too. Be sure to ask your healthcare team what kind of support is available and interview providers to make sure your goals align.

The IBCLC is the only internationally recognized expert in the field of lactation. Consider asking your friends for a recommendation to an experienced and trusted lactation consultant. You can find a lactation consultant near you at ILCA.org.

Finding the right support at the right time can allow you to overcome obstacles that interfere with successful breastfeeding. Breastfeeding memories, just like our childbirth memories, last a lifetime. Breastfeeding is about so much more than milk. It can be an empowering and gratifying experience. Most of all, it should bring joy!

(Names have been changed to protect privacy)

Have you experienced breastfeeding trauma?  Please share your story below.

 

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